Tracing our Roots: Matthew 1: 1-17

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[June 17, 2008]  Last weekend I had a conversation with my 92-year-old grandpa. I'm heading out to see him in Oregon in June. It's always amazing to hear about the things my own grandfather has lived through (he was 16 when the Stock Market crashed, 26 when Hitler invaded Poland, 28 when Japan invaded Pearl Harbor, and 32 when the war ended).

GlassDuring the course of our conversation I asked him about his grandpa, the one who had been a state senator for 20 years in Lane County, Oregon. His name had been Halver, he'd lived from the 1850s-1940s, and besides being a state senator he'd been a sheep farmer, had married a woman named Eliza Bond (everyone called her Kate), and had had eight children, my great grandfather being the oldest.

After my conversation with Grandpa, I became obsessed with looking up our family tree. I got online and traced Eliza's family back to the 1700s. I'm sure there are some good stories from the lives of many of my ancestors.


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For example, Eliza's grandfather, Joseph Bond, died on December 31st, 1838, New Year's eve. Did he feel disappointment or relief as he lay on the brink of a New Year, knowing--perhaps--that he wouldn't see another one? Had he ended his own life, or did he have memories of the Christmas celebrations that may have taken place just days before? These are all questions that I may never know the answers to.

A few generations up another branch takes us to William Bruce, the father of "Major" William Bruce (who would be born two months and two days after the US declared independence from Britain). All I know so far of William Sr. is that he was born February 14th, Valentine's Day, in either 1744 or 5. I wonder if he lived his life with a lot of love, or if he was part of the revolution. I have no record of his death. In the midst of these lives and dates and personal histories is a larger, younger, country's history.


At first it was exciting tracing back through all these generations, and then I felt like a mountain of people and years had piled up, names and dates that I had never met were getting lost in a very intricate and convoluted web of relations. It was pretty anticlimactic. I realized how "nonspecial" we are, and as generation after generation piled up, I began to get the image that we were one massive, sprawled out, heaving brood. On my mom's and stepmom's side the family tree is a mixture of broken branches and grafts, and on my dad's side it's mostly an uninterrupted branch, as straight, and sometimes as rigid, as an old oak.

What I came to realize though was that pedigree doesn't matter. It doesn't matter whether the family line was broken or unbroken, and with most of us its usually a mixture of both. The heroes and villains, clerics and cattle thieves, political servants, prostitutes and outlaws, slave liberators and slave holders and indentured servants make up our checkered past. They spring from the same branch. Yet we're all family, we have to live together, and we have to get along.

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I also realized that my place in the world doesn't depend on where I come from. Some of it is shaped by my own actions and what I do with my own life and years, but even more important than that, our value comes from being part of a different family, being part of a bigger history and bigger story: God's. Romans talks about being grafted into his family where, regardless of our past, we can become princes and princesses with an inheritance and belonging. None of the other matters; most of that comes by chance and circumstance anyway.  What matters then is whether or not we are willing to become part of a new family or still see ourselves as the outcast, disinherited wanderers weve been.

Whether we're born into the home of beggars or kings, we have no say in the matter. It wasn't dependent on anything we could do. The same is true with being part of God's family. The "rights" we now have don't come from anything we've done, but on our adoption, our grafting in, as sons and daughters.

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Sometimes when we're born into wealth we think somehow we're better or morally superior to those who live in addiction or poverty, when actually, at least in the beginning, it's all about the luck of the draw and what those who have come before us have done or not done with their own choices and circumstances. For some, they're given rocks and weeds, and yet manage to turn it into something of value, and the space they carve out feeds others and their future family for generations. Others take a well tilled, well managed, well cared for plot and through neglect and mismanagement it quickly deteriorates into wasteland.

We have no way of seeing at one point in time where someone is at, whether they are squandering what they have been given or pushing out into uncharted territory. To the person coming out of inner city ghettos and crack houses, staying sober and clean and getting a high school education is a land unimagined or unheard of, while to a Harvard educated son or daughter whose pedigree comes from kings and politicians, this would seem cheap change. Yet to the wealthy and educated, their challenge might be to give it all away, to make a new beginning, not on the shoulders and backs of what they've been given, but through the work and character (and grace) of their own lives.

My grandpa has lived a good long life, and is still living it, which is something I'd like to be able to say as well someday. The dash in between two dates is what we've been given, but we've also been given so much more.

[Cliff Wheeler - LCCS Faculty]



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